Being lost

The farther down the road we went, the more isolated we became and the whiter everything became. I wondered aloud if we were making a foolish mistake; we weren’t even experienced enough with snow to make a guess. Florangela said, “It’s an adventure.” But I kept thinking how all the roads in Yellowstone followed rivers and, if I couldn’t distinguish the next curve, we’d run off the road into icy water, where we wouldn’t die from our wounds but of hypothermia.

There are many ways to be lost. Some have declined due to technology; others are newly born. But in every situation, to be lost is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is frightening, often dangerous, but it also breeds connection—with people, and with places. The maps people carry in their pockets can be a barrier to that connection, but they are also safety nets. And it’s easier to take a leap if you know there’s something at the bottom to catch you.


I find it easy to remember each time I’ve been lost, however expansive the definition.  If by lost you mean having no idea beyond the general where I am, I’m not sure I’ve ever been lost, at least as an adult.  If by lost you mean only knowing my location within a mile or so, I could spend hours reciting examples.  And if by lost you mean knowing where I was but being unable due to circumstance to reliably get myself where I wanted to go, I could tell vivid stories from both the woods and the city.  These last are the most frightening and thus the most memorable of all.

Years ago two friends and I spent a full October day hiking a loop Steve Allen recommended for three days.  I had run a road marathon a week earlier and was at the beginning of what would become a 2 year battle with IT band problems.  Rather than cancel our vacation I took 3200 mg of Ibuprofen each day, changed our itinerary not at all, and really suffered, due to lack of legroom, with 5 people 5’10” or taller in a Subaru for the 16 hour drive between Moab and central Iowa.  We made the loop, but spent the hours of dusk seeing our exit canyon trail into indistinct cow trails through pinons and junipers.  There was just enough light left to see the height of the cliff we found ourselves atop, and just enough energy left in our minds to wander south and feel a way down to the flats below.  The whole time we could see the lights of the interstate in the distance, which reminded us that unless we did something foolish we weren’t going to die, however painful and scary the moments might be.

Years later my mother and I took a cab to the main rail station in Cairo, with an hour in the dark to find the platform for the sleeper train which would take us south.  In the previous 10 days we had consistently been the only white tourists not attached to a tourist group, something I clearly understood as I tried to match the Arabic writing on our tickets (bought days before from an office off Tahrir Square, staffed with fluent English speakers) to the signs along the platforms.  Cairo never seemed more dingy and massive, a mood made purely form our doubt.  Eventually (likely within 20 minutes) a polylingual bystander saw and provided us with the help we obviously needed, and we were able to sleep well and wake up in Luxor.

During the Bob Open in 2016 Derek and I fought our way through deadfall down to Lion Creek, only to take the spur trail across to the outfitter camp and spend an hour postholing around the hillside looking for it to continue downstream, when it was in fact just on the other side.  Our not especially detailed, but particularly trustworthy, map showed the trail crossing to our side at some point, so I knew we’d find it, it was just a question of how long our detour would delay the eventual end of the trip that afternoon, and whether we might sprain an ankle falling through the rotten snow into the hidden logs below.

On that occasion Derek’s GPS could not get a clear enough signal to be of use, and by then 5 years of living in northwest Montana, a corner of the world Google had not yet mapped definitively, had tempered my faith in connectivity.  The mental side of being “lost” had at least in the woods become so routine that by then I was often choosing to intentionally under-map myself, in the name of maintaining adventure.  Something, incidentally, I would never choose to do in the city, either on foot or by car.  Last Christmas we got lost both ways in the wilds of Baltimore, one time when the highway suddenly vanished into residential streets, and Google helped us link the mysteries of 400 year old urban development over to the harbor we could see in the distance, and another when my sense of scale failed me and we walked nearly a mile past the movie theatre, in spite of having a digital map in front of me and obvious landmarks along the waterfront.


All of which is to say that while I might pity anyone who finds much adventure driving along a well maintained paved road, I live in a glass house insofar as I still find it challenging to take the big picture perspective which comes so easily in the woods and put it to use on the rare occasions I’m in a city of more than 30,000.

I was frightened of the woods for a very long time, even for long after I had spent enough nights on the dirt to rarely have trouble sleeping out there.  For the better part of a decade, persistently, ambitions for multi-nights trips would be delayed or curtailed because of trepidation, and when they happened a creeping anxiety would crawl over my back for days between the conception and the casting off.  With time it began to wain, remaining only with bigger trips or longer outings.  In the last four years that has been replaced, with a sharper but less acute concern over select ambiguities.  How miserable will post holing over that pass actually be?  Will there be enough water to float from the first creek?  Where will the elk be?

On the one hand this has been encouraging.  Backpacking is a lot less stressful, if perhaps less rewarding in the moment.  Hunting has been one substitute for the fear of novelty, with trying to find critters and (more significantly) seeing if I can be patient enough to hunt them properly providing another area where the quest for mastery can still run free in all directions.


2 responses to “Being lost”

  1. While I’d be lying if I said I read your blog just for these posts, these posts make reading the blog way more satisfactory. I got lost in Finnish woods (properly lost, but after I failed to find a way out with map and compass I took out the GPS and stopped being lost) which was one of the most fundamental learning experiences for me, and was annoyingly humbling. Being lost can be a one way trip to the morgue, yet being a bit off the expected position seems liberating. To me, being able to read the land well enough to improvise the way (or at least, have a strong intuitive sense, no map needed, of where I am) means a strong and direct intimacy with the land — and as much as it is all in my head that is the kind of feeling I want to go to when I am outside.

  2. Great read, Dave. I worked on the Tibetan Plateau, and later rural China, for years pre-smartphone era and we were very lost all the time (e.g., had literally no idea where we were within a hundred miles, just knew how to get back to camp). Somehow this never really bothered me, I think because it was expected. On the other hand unexpectedly I got slightly lost (e.g., had a general idea how to get home, but also knew I had screwed up my navigation) in the mountains for the first time in my adult life two weekends ago and it was one of the more dumbfounding and downright scary experiences I’ve had for a long time.

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